Hemlock or Hemlock?

Poison hemlock

I’ve always been interested in edible wild plants, but usually try the edibility part myself before I share—especially with our kids and more especially when it involves mushrooms!  With those I make sure I try only the easy ones like morels or white puffballs—remembering that composer Johann Schobert, a major influence on Mozart, killed himself and his whole family be eating misidentified “edible” mushrooms.  But I think in one incident I might have come close to poisoning myself.

In the summer of 1993 I was particularly seeking to find and identify sweet cicely, which is supposed to be native to our part of Michigan.  It has been used for seasoning because of its anise or licorice-like flavor—and I like both licorice and anise.  I failed to find it after several sniffs and nibbles of plants that looked like it.

Sweet cicely

The following spring I had the opportunity to go along with a college chorale on a trip to Perugia, Italy, as the photographer.  We stayed in Rome the first night, and the following day our host took us to see the old city—and the Pope (along with some 10,000 others!).  Walking to the subway terminal with the group, I spotted a plant by the sidewalk that looked just like sweet cicely, so I plucked a small leaf from it to sniff it and do a tiny nibble.  Bad mistake!  My lips went numb.  What in the world had I sampled?!  Then I recalled Socrates, who had been forced to kill himself by drinking a cup of poison hemlock juice.  Greece, Rome, the Northern Mediterranean—well known to have poison hemlock growing wild all over. Let me tell you—sweet cicely and poison hemlock sure do look a lot alike. But as Gomer Pyle might have said, I was, “Dumb, dumb, dumb!”

I survived that ordeal with only numb lips—but did learn one of the wilderness survival techniques: if you are starving and need to eat plants and don’t know what you are eating, you’re supposed to touch it to your lips, and wait; then take a slight nibble, and wait; swallow a tiny amount, and wait for a few hours. If you don’t get sick, you might increase the amount you ingest a little bit each day (I suppose until you are rescued or dead!).  The system works!  I’m thankful that I survived to become a little wiser (think “less dumb”!).  I was reminded of this episode when driving through Kentucky last week where I saw large stands of poison hemlock in full bloom (smart enough now to spot it from a distance!).

Healthy branch

Dying branch

Later, on into the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, I saw more hemlock—or hemlocks.  But that was the tree, not the herbaceous plant of Socratic fame. I don’t have a clue why such different plants have the same name.  As I mentioned in my last “Ambling” post, the hemlocks of Appalachia are under serious threat from an accidentally (“they” think) introduced little bug from Asia called the wooly adelgid.  Seeing the graying foliage and dead branches of thousands of these majestic trees standing out in the Southeastern forests is sad—another reminder that invasive species of all sorts are creating havoc around the world.  In Southeastern US, however, invasives seem to be taking over: kudzu, princess tree, tree of heaven, and oriental bittersweet, for instance.  Now the emerald ash borer, which has killed millions of ash trees in the Midwest, is on its way south and has the potential of killing off the entire ash family in North America—billions of trees (Ash borer damage shown in photo to the left).

All of these species are native to China.  We buy billions of dollars worth of commodities from China—and they send us invasive species free!  Hmmmm.

See you outdoors!

Dean